Why Do Jamaicans Run So Fast?
In years to come anthropologists, nutritionists, and geneticists will be doing doctoral dissertations on the unique physical and psychological constitution of the population on a small dot in the Caribbean Sea called Jamaica in order to find out why we rule the world of sprint. Beijing 2008 Olympic games and the summer 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin signalled the dominance of the Caribbean island nation in an area they have made a mark on for some time.
Veranda talk has it that Jamaica would have ruled the roost long ago were it not for the chemical advantages of certain nations. Those same sources say that with the advent of stricter monitoring and more advanced drug testing the usual culprits are unable to continue their dirty game hence the present supremacy of clean runners.
Nature or Nurture
There is a robust youth system which peaks at the annual Boys and Girls Athletics Championships. It appears that up to the high school years Jamaica can hold its own in football and athletics. Somehow the athletic talent is harnessed and directed to become world leaders. Our young soccer stars may experience the same success with discipline and technical guidance.
But I digress...
Not quite, because you see the nurturing of young athletes in the Jamaican school system is no secret. Coaches spend quality time with their young people who show promise. And there are numerous events at local schools and in the regions in order to provide continuous improvement particular on the track, as opposed to the field events.
Whereas we are yet to display consistent and comprehensive mastery of several field events, Jamaicans, without a doubt, have cornered the market on sprinting.
Since the Herb McKenley quartet at Helsinki, Jamaica has produced world beaters like Donald Quarrie and Merlene Ottey; the difference in the past few years is that the sprint factory has turned up the production numbers, and quality.
The nature vs. nurture discussion has been going ad nauseam; in fact one sports commentator on Jamaica radio has been adamant on the nurture side on every opportunity.
Nature may have something to say after all.
Science is on the side of the Jamaicans. An article in the Jamaica Gleaner dated July 8, 2008 disclosed the preliminary findings of a joint study by the University of Glasgow and University of the West Indies, the sample included 200 Jamaican athletes. According to the article more than 200 Jamaican athletes were tested and found to possess the Actinen component in their fast-twitch muscle fibres - the rapidly contracting muscle fibres that enable sprinters to run really fast. The scientists have been looking at athletes from around the world, those of West African origin, east Africa and elsewhere. The early data is that for the fast-twitch fibres in the muscles, there is a special component called the Actinen A, of which the gene was identified in the fast-twitch fibres found in 70 per cent of the athletes from Jamaica, this compared to only 30 per cent in an Australian group that is being tested.
Look out world we have many Usain Bolts, Asafa Powells, Sherone Simpsons and Sherika Williams waiting to be discovered in the island in the sun. The genes are twitching to run, pun intended.
There is no such thing as lucky. Success always comes with a burden. Warning label on the pack, Jamaican thinker Martin Henry is looking in the animal kingdom and observes that the aggressive animals are the speedy ones. He believes that if there is a positive correlation between speed and aggression in a gene pool it could also explain why Jamaicans are so violent. Physical training can harness the speed to make us world champions. Long term social measures are needed to channel the aggression.
Stop press. Every thing written so far in this article must now be qualified by a different scientific argument posted by Daniel on the Genetic Future blog. Reading the content reminded me that whereas television is a vast wasteland, the internet is a vast gold mine. Take a look at this:
An excessive emphasis on ACTN3 as a major explanation for Jamaican success does a grave disservice to the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors required for top-level athletic performance. This suggestion goes against everything we've learnt about the genetics of complex traits from recent genome-wide association studies, which have revealed that quantitative traits (like height and body weight) are frequently influenced by dozens to hundreds of genes, each of small effect; if anything, it's likely that athletic performance will be even more genetically complex than these traits. The ACTN3-centred argument also dismisses the importance of Jamaica's impressive investment in the infrastructure and training system required to identify and nurture elite track athletes, the effects of a culture that idolises local track heroes, and the powerful desire of young Jamaicans to use athletic success to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
It is almost certainly true that Usain Bolt carries at least one of the "sprint" variants of theACTN3 gene, but then so do around five billion other humans worldwide.
What do you think? Is the Jamaican sprint tradition due to nature or nurture?